Plans have been finalized to set aside 1.9 million acres of public land in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming for commercial development of about 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, the Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday.
Those plans also include protecting some critical BLM and wilderness areas.
The oil is locked in shale under the so-called Green River Formation that spans three states. The BLM amended 12 land-use plans in its "Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement" published Thursday in the Federal Register.
"The goal of the BLM's oil-shale program is to promote economically viable and environmentally sound production of oil shale on Western lands," BLM Director Jim Caswell said in a statement. He said the oil being sought is "enough to meet U.S. demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years."
With many logistical and environmental hurdles yet to be cleared, actual commercial leasing of public land was only one step closer Thursday, with commercial development even further out as oil companies continue to refine techniques needed to extract the oil from shale. Currently there is a moratorium that essentially bars the BLM from leasing any public land for private oil-shale interests.
"The president has urged Congress to lift its moratorium that prevents our agency from preparing final regulations that would move this program forward so that our nation can be more energy self-reliant," Caswell said.
Under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, Congress made it clear that going after oil in shale will play a role in reducing the country's dependence on imported oil.
But some are accusing people like Utah Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch of rushing to drill before all environmental concerns have been worked out. Hatch had a quick answer for critics on Thursday.
"A lot of folks have been armchair quarterbacking on the environmental aspects of oil-shale development in this country," Hatch said. "Now we have the official word from the actual experts on how the environment can be protected during oil-shale development."
The BLM said Thursday that 305,000 acres of BLM-managed lands in the potential development area would be excluded from oil-shale leasing. "No leasing would be allowed in wilderness areas, wilderness study areas, other units of the
BLM's National Landscape Conservation System and areas of critical environmental concern closed to mineral development," the BLM officials said.
"I commend the BLM for taking another important step toward leasing federal lands for oil-shale development," Bennett said Thursday. "The only obstacle standing in the way of producing more American oil through this abundant resource is Congress. As a senator from an oil-shale state, I will continue to fight this legislative battle to repeal the moratorium on oil shale."
Hatch and Bennett have generally criticized democratic lawmakers from back East, states where there are far less public lands issues, for holding up progress on developing oil-shale resources."By issuing this final study without having any real idea of the environmental or economic costs that shale and sand development will have to Utah's public lands, the BLM is putting the cart before the horse," said Stephen Bloch, conservation director and attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He said issuing the document before having answers to key environmental questions is "irresponsible."